"I think the gay male population is much more visible than the lesbian community, and I don’t know why that is. It’s something I’ve always thought about, but I’m just not sure.”
Caroline K. Lauer ’14 speaks softly and wears her long blonde hair knotted in a ponytail. Lauer is a Peer Advising Fellow and a volunteer at the Phillips Brooks House Association; she holds an on-campus job and made her best friends during a pre-orientation program and over long conversations in Annenberg. She is also in a long-term relationship with another woman.
“I don’t think it’s something Harvard talks about a lot,” says Lauer, in reference to the disparity in the number of gay men and gay women on campus.
Female students who identify as gay, especially those like Lauer who are not involved in specifically queer groups, recount trying and often failing to find other women of their sexual orientation.
“That’s so real, that’s such a real frustration,” says Linda M. Buehler ’14, who identifies as queer.
After she came out during freshman year, Buehler made it her mission to seek out other queer-identifying women in the area to whom she could look for support. “I’m really comfortable because I spent a year finding lesbians all over Massachusetts. I spent an entire year finding lesbians,” she says. “I actually have a book in my room called ‘Finding the Lesbians.’”
At a school where gay men are more easily encountered, addressing the question of where the lesbians are involves engaging in a larger discussion of existing stereotypes about lesbians and the fluidity of female sexuality. Inevitably a dialogue concerning the role of queer-identifying females at Harvard cannot be separated from considerations of any woman’s place on campus.
FINDING A PARTNER
“I guess I feel like if I were a gay guy, I could go home with a different guy every night of the week if I really wanted to, whereas as a lesbian you can’t really do that because you end up going back with the same people,” Maddie O. Studt ’16 says.
Brianna J. Suslovic ’16 and Grace E.G. Huckins ’16 met at an open house for the Office of BGLTQ Student Life at the beginning of the school year and have been happily dating since—but they’re the exception. Huckins, a Crimson Arts comper, recalls a conversation with a friend: “We found it easy to rattle off the men who are openly gay in the Class of 2016, but we could name fewer than 10 women,” she recalls, pausing to consider the significance of her statement. “It’s very stark when you kind of look at it like that.”
Huckins’s inability to name many lesbians in her Harvard class is not uncommon.
“Whenever I go to a queer party I see so many gay men and hardly any lesbians.” says Lindsay, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because she has yet to come out to her family. According to her estimation, for every 10 gay couples seen on campus, about eight of them are men.
“The markers for being a gay male are very recognized by society,” says Lynne S. Peskoe ’14, who identifies as bisexual and interns at the BGLTQ Office of Student Life.
“Everybody knows about gaydar for men; only queer women know about gaydar for women,” continues Peskoe. “You have a checklist in your head when you meet someone. You’re like, oh, she’s cute: Who are her blockmates? Who does she hang out with? What does she study?”
Peskoe, a junior, has, to a certain extent, figured out a system for identifying signs of lesbians or bisexuals at Harvard. But, for others, finding lesbian women can be a daunting task.
“I could not tell you what defines a lesbian on the Harvard campus,” says Sasanka N. Jinadasa ’15, who identifies as pansexual, meaning that she is open to relationships with people of any gender.
“It’s not like people walk around with ‘lesbian’ tattooed on their forehead,” she continues. “Though sometimes I wish they would!” As a pansexual, Jinadasa expresses a desire to have relationships with both men and women, but she says that the small dating pool of lesbian and female bisexuals makes it much easier to date men.
“It’s math: Let’s say I’m attracted to 50 percent women and 50 percent men. Let’s say there are 40 people in a room and I’m attracted to all of the guys and all of the girls. There are nine guys who are gay and one girl who is queer.”
Jinadasa recounts breaking up with her boyfriend last year partly because she wanted to have a relationship with a woman. After an unsuccessful search for gay females, she is now back together with her boyfriend.
Studt also expresses difficulty with finding other queer women. “I know where they would potentially exist, but seeking them out is a struggle,” she says. “You can’t just go up to somebody and say, ‘Hey, I heard you’re queer.’”
The desire for a larger, more visible lesbian community extends well beyond a desire for romance. “We’ve been through this non-normative experience,” says Linda M. Buehler ’14, and for this reason many lesbians and female bisexuals at Harvard seek more opportunities for friendship with queer-identifying females.
Lindsay has been out at Harvard since her freshman year, and she still wishes that she knew more lesbians besides her girlfriend’s friends from the rugby team.“It’s really frustrating and sad because, outside of dating, it would have been nice to have a friend like me who’s gay and in PBHA and in the Seneca and that’s fine.... It still would be,” she says.
SAFETY IN NUMBERS
“I think you do have lesbians on campus; I think it’s just harder to come out,” says Lindsay. She describes having been “on the fence about coming out,” attributing her hesitancy to the difficulty of finding other lesbians in the Harvard community who looked and acted as she did. “I didn’t know anybody who was like me that was gay, too,” she recalls.
Lindsay says she only came out at Harvard when she started dating another girl who was able to introduce her to a community of lesbian friends on the rugby team. Without that connection to other lesbians on campus, she says, she probably would have stayed in the closet.
She describes the coming out process as extremely difficult because she did not know any lesbians outside of her girlfriend’s network of friends: “It would have been really nice to have something like that [community] disassociated with a sport to help with that coming out phase.”
The limited visibility of gay females can make coming out an intimidating prospect. “I can’t really say that anyone’s coming out experience is more difficult because there are so many factors that go into it,” says Emily, who was granted anonymity by The Crimson because she has not shared her sexuality with much of her community at home. “Everyone’s experience is unique. I think—just in terms of visibility—it’s definitely harder for women, especially if you don’t know where to go at first or where to look.”
For lesbians or bisexuals who arrive at Harvard and question their sexuality, there simply are not as many women who have come out to look to as examples. “There’s a vicious cycle of people not coming out because they don’t think there are lesbians or bisexuals in the community,” says Studt, who came out as gay at her California high school.
“There’s safety in numbers to come out and be who you are,” says Lindsay, echoing Studt. “With women, since we don’t have that community in place, since we don’t have the numbers, there’s no space for us to come out and be who we want to be.”
SEEKING A SPACE
Many lesbians and female bisexuals at Harvard lament the lack of queer-female-specific space—both physical and symbolic—that Lindsay alluded to. Places such as the Women’s Center, the Queer Resource Center, and the recently opened Office of BGLTQ Student Life attract queer women, but they are also aimed at other subsets of the Harvard population. Girlspot, Harvard’s student-run group for queer women and allies, has not been very active in recent years.
“The thing about Harvard’s queer network of women that’s different from other schools is that you can go to those spaces to be queer, but they’re not queer spaces,” says Buehler over dinner at the Dudley Co-op, citing schools such as Boston University, which has a center for women’s sexuality and activism. “[At other schools] you have places where you go to be with specifically women who are queer. That space has never really materialized here.”
Some frequently visited social spaces on campus, such as final clubs and sororities, do not attract many queer-identifying females. “A big thing about female sororities and final clubs is their interactions with the male components,” says Huckins. “People talk about trying to get into final club parties, dressing up and looking nice, which men find attractive—which I think for a lot of women who don’t identify as straight is something that’s very difficult to stomach.”
Peskoe has also noticed the lack of gay female representation in sororities and final clubs. “I think queer women exclude themselves,” she says. “They’re not interested in spaces that aren’t totally welcome to them, and they can sense that.”
You would not commonly find a queer woman inside a male final club, says Peskoe, who believes that as a minority group, lesbians and female bisexuals are often more “plugged into the socially liberal and activist culture.” And “if you’re aware of these issues, they’re going to point you away from the front doors of final clubs,” she says.
According to many of the women interviewed for this article, there are places on campus, such as the Co-op or Cafe Gato Rojo, that are known for attracting a relatively higher number of queer-identifying females. There are also some sports teams and student groups that are known for having visibly high numbers of people of various sexualities, but these are not first and foremost spaces for queer female students.
Though Harvard may be lacking in institutional space allotted to queer-identifying women, Buehler, among others, has made an effort to create a symbolic space—a space formed by the community itself. Buehler sports a short haircut and wears a sweater over shirt and tie. “My goal for the past few years has been uniting the Harvard lesbians,” says Buehler. She describes her hair and clothing choices as intentional acts to identify herself as “a walking safe space.”
In Buehler’s opinion, the symbolic space that queer women provide for other women can offer a different kind of support than physical spaces such as the QRC. “That comes with a lot of reasons why I don’t join a lot of queer groups, because I want you to know that this visibility can exist outside of explicit visibility,” she explains. In dressing the way she does, she hopes to serve as an easily identifiable queer female at Harvard.
COVERING THE SPECTRUM
Buehler’s impetus to dress and act in a manner that makes her more visible to other gay women highlights another problem for women seeking women on campus: It’s often hard to tell when a woman is gay.
This lack of uniformity among the community can be freeing for lesbian women, but it can also make it more difficult to figure out who is and isn’t out. The stereotypes that do exist may be another reason that Harvard women are less likely to come out. If a woman doesn’t conform to one of the propagated stereotypes—the butch lesbian, the lipstick lesbian, the activist lesbian, etc.—she hesitates to identify as a lesbian at all.
Lindsay says that the majority of her friends are straight, but that some of them might openly question their sexuality, if they weren’t limited by these popular conceptions. “They have this mindset of ‘No, I couldn’t do it, I want to but I couldn’t,’” says Lindsay. “They have this picture of butch lesbians in their minds. That’s just a stereotype; not all lesbians are muscular and tattooed with short hair.”
“I think we’d have more lesbians on campus if there was more of that space to see there isn’t that one type of lesbian,” she says, frustrated by how few lesbians she has been met at Harvard.
Many queer-identifying Harvard females gesture to media representations of gay people that tend toward the depiction of males rather than females. “The gay characters you see on TV, the vast majority are male,” says Huckins.“
Lesbianism is trivialized by the way it’s treated by the media as something that men find attractive,” she continues. “The word ‘gay’ originally referred to all genders, not just men, but now we use it for men. I think sexism is something that definitely comes into play.”
Studt echoes this idea: “In ‘Modern Family,’ there’s a gay couple, but there’s less portrayal of successful lesbian couples in common media.”
Suslovic, an active member of the QSA and volunteer at the QRC who identifies as queer, also voices disappointment at the tendency to put lesbians in strictly defined categories.
“There have been scenarios where I’ve been with my girlfriend and someone else has been like ‘Oh no! She’s definitely straight’ because she has long hair and looks feminine,” says Suslovic. “And so they refuse to believe she’s gay.”
Huckins, Suslovic’s girlfriend, wears her long dark brown hair down, and accessorizes with dangling earrings.“
It goes back to this deal of being forced into a stereotype,” Suslovic concludes. “I think that changing that sort of mentality around the entire issue is important.”
A SENSE OF FLUIDITY
“It’s easier to kiss a girl at a party than to formally come out,” says Lindsay.
“I have friends who’ve said ‘We’ve made out at. like, a final club and stuff like that just to get people to pay attention to us,’” continues Lindsay. “That’s not what experimentation should be.”
Hesitation to classify oneself as a single sexual orientation, combined with a cultural readiness to accept girls making out with other girls as just another night in the party scene, may make it easier for women to stay in the closet.
“As a whole, women tend to view sexuality as more fluid,” says Huckins. “Numerically, you’ll find fewer women who identify as lesbians but more women who identify as bisexual.” This, she says, may explain why more men are active in the QSA. “If you identify as gay you tend to get more involved with those [queer-oriented] groups. Women are less strictly defined sexually so they might not join a group.”
Therefore, Huckins concludes, “the gay community as a whole is very distinctly male-dominated.”
Huckins is not the only woman to voice this perception. “I think that there are a lot of women that perhaps experiment with other women–or find themselves attracted to other women situationally–but wouldn’t go as far as to define themselves as a lesbian,” says Emily. “I think for women there’s a lot more fluidity, as opposed to gay males where that’s not what the perception is.”
Jinadasa identifies an attitude “that male bisexuals don’t exist, but every female is bisexual.”
This fluidity can be a double-edged sword, giving rise to the popular belief that no woman is ever exclusively interested in women.“
Sexuality is fluid in my opinion,” Suslovic concedes, “but I don’t think that someone is necessarily going to go through a phase of just dating girls in college because it’s fun and they’re experimenting. I think that that’s okay to do, but I don’t think it’s okay to stereotype that as something that someone is doing because they want to play around.”
A MALE DOMINION
Neimy K. Escobar ’15 lounges on a couch in the QRC next to her girlfriend. She has dark hair, long, almost waist-length, and wears a sweatshirt over leggings. Two other women sit nearby typing at their computers. All of them are undergraduate students who identify as lesbian and who spend much of their time in between classes hanging out in the QRC located in the basement of Thayer Hall.
Escobar, the QSA social co-chair, says that she avoided thinking about her sexuality as a teenager growing up in Las Vegas. Upon arriving at Harvard, Escobar fell for her current girlfriend during her freshman fall.
“If I wasn’t in the QSA I don’t know if I would be able to find other lesbians,” she says. Even at QSA events, Escobar concedes that it can be hard to find other lesbians. “As social chair I try to host events, and the only people that show up are gay males, and I’m the only female.”
Jinadasa also describes the QSA as a predominantly male organization.
“I tried to go to a lot of QSA events at first because I told myself that if I’m out I have to do this whole thing.” But she found it to be full of males.
Jinadasa concedes that the QSA puts on a lot of positive events for the queer community, but she expresses a larger frustration with what she perceives to be a male domination of queer life at Harvard.
Kenneth M. Mai ’15, a QSA board member, acknowledges that “there definitely is a deficit in terms of lesbian representation, in terms of how many out lesbians we see.” He points to a QSA-sponsored excursion to the gay nightclub Machine as an example of an event that was advertised as co-ed, but ended up being predominantly male.
Mai says the QSA has made a concerted effort to improve lesbian representation by targeting lesbian invitees for their events.
“I’m not seeing any kind of clear discrimination against lesbians at Harvard,” Mai says. “But there does seem to be a trend in that we don’t see as many queer women represented here. I think there are a lot fewer out visible gay women at Harvard and in gay social scenes in general.”
Indeed, many lesbians express that low levels of lesbian visibility is not a Harvard-specific phenomenon.
“I don’t think it’s something that Harvard can really be blamed for.… It seems to be pretty universal,” Suslovic says.
Speaking on this lack of female representation in the gay world, Suslovic—who hails from Syracuse, New York—says, “I think it’s almost true everywhere. I knew quite a few guys who were out in my high school, but in my high school of close to 1,000 people there were maybe three girls who were out, and I was one of them.”
Perhaps the low level of lesbian visibility on campus contributes to the perception that Harvard has a long way to go in terms of gender equality.
“I think campus in general is very male dominated in all senses of the word,” Escobar says.
She recalls her frustrations in planning QSA events as just one of many instances in which she felt that women were underrepresented at Harvard.
Peskoe adds, “Any discussion about queer women is inevitably a discussion about women and misogyny.”
ONLINE AND OFF CAMPUS
“I think it would be really challenging to be a lesbian who was single here,” says Lauer, who is currently dating another Harvard student. “I wouldn’t even know how to go about it. I wouldn’t know what to do.
”Many gay women, frustrated with the lack of options available to them at Harvard, head off campus in search of sexual partners. Online dating, specifically through the website OkCupid, is a popular method of finding women seeking women.
“A lot of people turn to online dating,” explains Escobar, who is preparing a panel on the subject for the QSA. A reference to the panel elicits snaps of approval from the other women present in the QRC.
“The beauty of OkCupid is that it’s a space where you can say ‘I am queer’ and not have to broadcast yourself. You can be queer without having to wave a rainbow flag or wear a tie everywhere. It’s a big relief,” says Buehler, who is scheduled to appear on the panel with Peskoe.
Buehler, an inactive Crimson blog editor, mentions an event for lesbians attending local colleges as another example of an off-campus opportunity to meet other gay women. The 18-plus event is hosted by a group at Boston University and modeled after an initiative called “Dyke Night,” which is only open to women who are 21-plus.
Many lesbians at Harvard do not attend such events, as they require insight into the Boston lesbian network, which remains largely unfamiliar. “We want to mix with other schools,” says Escobar, leading to agreement from her peers in the QRC. “But there’s a surprisingly low level of mixing.”
Although many queer-identifying Harvard women resort to going off campus to find other lesbians, most hope that this will not always be the case.
“I think we need more education on campus about issues like this. It would be really nice to have a mix and mingle for gay women,” says Lindsay. “Put some food down, let’s just talk and meet each other over something that’s not ‘The L Word.’ But nobody’s ever done that.”
For those Harvard women who have gone through the difficult process of finding a community of lesbians here, the rewards are worth the search.
Even though it can be difficult, says Buehler, “that’s what makes it so beautiful! You gotta work for it, but then you think, yes, we’re gonna be friends for life. That’s what makes it such a treasured community, too. That’s a part of the solidarity of being a queer woman, because you get what it’s like, and it sucks a lot of the time. There’s a certain solidarity to being not visible and finding each other.”
—Michelle Denise L. Ferreol contributed to the reporting of this article.